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Initial business continuity lessons from the Alberta wildfires

Peter Power, chairman of the Toronto-based World Conference on Disaster Management, looks at the current wildfire situation in Alberta, Canada, and asks whether any lessons can already be identified.

Introduction

By now we've all seen the apocalyptic images coming out of Canada where the fire in Alberta is now so big that it's measured in square kilometres and no longer hectares.  As I write this article the fire still remains essentially out of control, so now is not the time for any fault finding. Now is the time for action. Inquests will follow soon enough.  However, business continuity practitioners around the world should always look for trends in people/organizational behaviour in any crisis and some interesting but not always unique features are already starting to appear in Canada.   

At the start of the fire Matt Hepditch, one of many workers in a vast and controversial area in the middle of Canada referred to as the oil sands, went to work as usual. Although some of his friends had already decided to evacuate, Hepditch had decided not to, hoping that the fire would blow away from the centre of Canada's oil industry.

"At 2 o'clock, they called us in and said, 'If you want to go, you can go,'" he recalled. "Then chunks of ash started falling. That's when I knew we had to leave." Like many others, he quickly gathered up his family and headed out of ‘Fort Mac’ (reported in the Los Angeles Times). That was on Tuesday 3 May. Within hours 88,000 other people created a mass exodus, several recording images of horrific conditions on YouTube as flames were whipping across Highway 63, the only road out of Fort Mac. "The city of Fort McMurray is not safe to return to, and this will be true for a significant period of time," Rachel Notley, Alberta's premier, said three days later.

"I wish I could kick every person posting 'That's what you get for living by the oil sands' comments", so Tweeted a woman from Edmonton Alberta. Although the cause of the fire has not been determined, the images of such an inferno has for many people become symbolic of the occasional tension within Canada over its perceived role in climate change. Some Canadians see the fire as a type of divine retribution, while others see mother nature lashing back at those who they say, mistreat it in the name of profit.

A provincial politician in Alberta called the fire ‘karmic’ - bringing upon oneself inevitable results, good or bad (although he later apologised). Canadian Green Party leader Elizabeth May says the ongoing fire was "very related to the global climate crisis".

Extraction industries such as logging and mining have long been essential to areas such as Fort Mac and the oil sands have provided high-paying jobs to thousands of workers who came from struggling parts of the country to Alberta. As one commentator put it recently "Those sands have made Alberta rich, but they have made many in Canada uneasy".

Shannan Saunders, an experienced Emergency Manager in Canada and one our WCDM Co-Chairs told me the other day that "Fire conditions remain beyond extreme and conditions are so bad they really fall off the scale. Alberta has now had 390 fire starts in 2016 burning more than 176,000 hectares. Our five year average is 191 for the whole year and fire season doesn’t start until early June in most areas of Alberta.  Wildfire fighters normally only deploy for 14 days at a time.  Right now there are 500 firefighters in the area of Fort Mac who've come from all over Canada - and continue to arrive.  Even Russia has offered to send resources. The people of Fort Mac come from all over Canada and represent everything that many feel is awesome about our country. It’s hard to watch this fire and see the devastation. Impacts of this are incalculable". 

By 5 May the Canadian Red Cross announced that $11 million had already been raised for Alberta fire relief and as Chairman of the World Conference on Disaster Management (coincidentally to be held in Toronto in a few weeks from now), we added that appeal to our front page.   We're going to have experts from around the world gathering between 6-9 June to offer ideas/suggestion on all types of disasters, not only the current tragedy, so just for a moment let me refer to this. Take just one for example, Dr Mel Irons, WCDM board member, from Australia:

As Tasmania’s own terrifying bushfires took hold in 2013, Mel Irons set up a Facebook page to that soon reached c2 million people to share vital advice from generators to food banks and even the creation of a small armada of boats to ferry supplies. In a matter of moments she was at the centre of a social media whirlwind that would have far reaching effects.  Her innovation quickly went Australia-wide and then worldwide in a matter of days. Her work filled the gap or overwhelmed any other form of official communication and set new standards in Australia, a country, like Canada, known for its vast and quick moving forest fires. 

Lessons learned

Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau acknowledged that climate change will cause extreme weather events but added, "There have always been fires. There have always been floods. Pointing at any one incident and saying: 'This is because of this or that' is neither helpful, nor entirely accurate. We need to separate a pattern over time from any one event." So what are the lessons already emerging for business continuity practitioners?

People
As in just about all past crises that I've been involved with as a responder, from terrorist bombs to train crashes, people want to help. It's often referred to as altruism, or 'prosocial behaviour' where selfless concern for the welfare of others comes first and the continuing drama in Canada is no exception.  For example, many ordinary people offered shelter, food and water to those who fled Fort Mac and even the town of Lac-Megantic in Quebec, which is still recovering from the explosion of an oil train in 2013 that killed more than 40 people and destroyed much of its downtown, offered help. And don't forget the actual emergency responders: Nick Waddington from the Fort Mac Fire Department paid tribute to the efforts of fire-fighters "We had one member stand at the end of his driveway, watch his house burn to the ground and put in an 18-hour shift".

Economy
Alberta's oil sands are said to hold the third largest reserves in the world, after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, so a considerable economic hit on the Canadian economy is going to be obvious, but hopefully only for the short-medium term.

As much as a quarter of the country's oil production has been halted by the fire, raising concerns about the effect on the Canadian economy. "The situation remains fluid, and uncertainty remains about how long production disruptions will persist," economists at Royal Bank of Canada said in an economic comment released last Friday. "However, if we assume those shutdowns last for two weeks, they would subtract 0.5 percent from May GDP" (in 2011, approximately 40 percent of Slave Lake, Altanta, a community of 7,000, was also lost to fire).

The Bank of Montreal has estimated a $9 billion dollar insurance cost.  Non insurable costs are likely to be just as high, possibly even higher. 

The Fort Mac region was nicknamed ‘Fort McMoney’ at the peak of the oil boom in the previous decade and attracted top oil companies. The oil companies transformed the region and built community centres and amenities to attract workers. However, that may be in the past as the fire (or more accurately fires) has caused colossal property damage. Approximately 1,600 structures have been destroyed so far. This fire is on track to become the largest fire-related disaster in Canada’s history and could have a significant knock-on effect on its economy.

Planning
As ever, it's vital to evaluate threats and risks, but historical data is seldom absolute.  Many scientists suggest that such fires in various countries (e.g. Australia) are a natural process, essential to maintain healthy forests. Clearly, Canada is no stranger to this. I am told that of the majority of fires in Canada, about 95 percent, are contained to less than 200 hectares, but clearly the remaining 5 percent are now highly significant. The largest insured loss to date from a Canadian 'wildland' fire was Cdn$200 million following a fire in 2003 close to the city of Kelowna. Therefore, most business continuity managers in Canada are probably fully alert to this type of threat, not just in the fire zone, but also to the economic, infrastructure and community knock-on risks, well beyond the perceived danger area.

You also need experience and budget: Paul Kovacs, Executive Director, Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction in Canada (and former Chairman of WCDM) said in 2008 "Perhaps the greatest challenge is accepting that current wildland fire management practices need to change. These efforts have been successful over several decades in minimizing loss of life and destruction of property, but the losses in Kelowna and in California warn of a growing risk across Canada. Current fire suppression capacity, however, is eroding due to aging aircraft and equipment, provincial and territorial budget constraints and the retirement of experienced staff".

Another lesson to come under the Planning heading is the importance of factoring in human behaviour. Stories about pets in Fort Mac are similar to the lessons from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 where 40 percent of people who refused to leave their homes said they just didn't want to abandon their pets. During the weekend following the start of the fire, there were still people still in Fort Mac, even after an evacuation order had been issued. Many of those remaining had trouble getting out as they don't have cell phone use, and/or cars for transportation.  That apart, there have been occasional reports of a few people simply refusing to go, despite the fact that gas and electricity has now been cut off.  As I write this article there are people still trapped north of Fort Mac living in what is referred to as in oil camps meant for short term single space living. Hopefully the advice from Mel Irons from Australia and many other WCDM experts on hand now and meeting in a few weeks’ time might be useful.

I'll leave the final words to my friend and colleague Shannan Saunders who is closely watching events in her native Canada where she works: "A woman in Dawson Creek said the other day that it's so dry and has been for so long, that it sounds like Rice Krispies crackling under your feet.  It’s going to be a long summer in Alberta but Canada is resilient and I’m confident they will recover better than ever. I feel proud to be a Canadian".

The author

Peter Power is Chairman of the World Conference on Disaster Management and managing director of Visor Consultants (UK) Ltd.  Contact: peter.power@visorconsultants.com or @PeterPower17  

For the latest updates on the Alberta wildfires go to http://wildfire.alberta.ca/wildfire-status/wildfire-status-map.aspx



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